Foreign workers are not your props, Coca-cola

By Lim Jialiang

Quite a few people have been linking me the Coca-cola advertising project done in conjunction with the Singapore Kindness Movement. It’s very slick – the visuals, the editing, the sentimentality involved. In essence, it seems to call on us to value the contributions of foreign workers who have quite literally built our city.

I do want to stress that I am hardly impressed with what I saw, because campaigns like this are the most dangerous. Even though it purports to raise awareness when it comes to marginalised communities, it actually makes them more invisible in the process.

My problem with this brand of awareness-raising and “corporate-social responsibility” is that it renders the group that they promote behind the brand, not in front of it. It is not “thank you for building our homes.” It is “thank you for building our homes. Brought to you by coca cola.” Corporate whitewashing, despite it’s intentions, is still whitewashing and should be called out for the cheap, meaningless gesture that it is.

Moreover, it presents people with the idea that “hey, we are doing something!” by sending photos of their thanks to these people that they render invisible in their everyday lives.

What we seem to have bought is this idea of positivity, regardless of the situation – that a smile and helping words can make a difference. What I do want to state is that we should not overplay the role of positivity.

It is one thing to say that there are things to be happy about; but quite another to insist that it is the only conversation that is worth having. This is what the SKM is all about, promoting “positive” civic-mindedness. The human experience is not limited to positive emotions, and this incessant emphasis on focusing on what is good limits our vision severely to the injustices that are perpetuated.

Yes, you thank the foreign workers for their contributions, but do you at the same time acknowledge how disgustingly exploitative the construction industry is? What they need is better labour laws, not your selfies and your scribbling of how much you appreciate their efforts. It does nothing for their material and legal positions in Singapore. At the same time, those who are privileged can feel like they have done the right thing by “honouring” these people (Brought to you by Coca-Cola and the Singapore Kindness Movement).

If you want to know more about the everyday lives of foreign workers, do check out the latest episode in Al Jazeera’s 101 East, which provides an unvarnished introspection about foreign workers in Singapore which rightfully places them in the spotlight.

We should feel ashamed for tolerating the ill-treatment of foreign workers for so long. Let’s stop indulging in cheap sentimentality on the backs of foreign workers, and start thinking about, and lobbying for improvements on their working conditions.

Video by Al Jazeera’s 101 East on what some migrant workers face in Singapore